Tilting at Windmills at #HRTechConf: Reframing Candidate Experience Conversation

One of the most pervasive, and ubiquitous, topics permeating the recruitment and talent acquisition industry agendas is that of candidate experience, a focus reflected throughout the HR Technology Conference’s agenda and ancillary events, including the Third Annual Candidate Experience Awards.

The recipients of these awards, and the companies considered on the cutting edge of candidate experience, are without a doubt helping change perceptions and create best practices around this elusive yet extremely important issue, and these awards provide valuable validation – and recognition – for employers taking the time to get this critical recruiting competency right.

But the fact of the matter is, this recognition served largely not to show how far the industry has come in addressing candidate experience, but how far we still have to go before we get it right. Most of the winners were selected not for actually doing anything innovative or actually creating systemic change, but rather, for simply meeting the relatively low baseline for what recruiters should have ostensibly be doing for candidates in the first place – communicating status, illuminating what to expect in the process, and providing updates & feedback in a timely fashion.

That’s not candidate experience, that’s common sense. And only in our industry is common sense worthy of an award. But we’ve been talking about this issue for years now, and seem to be doing a great job of creating a conversation and awareness about candidate experience, but little in the way of facilitating tangible change, particularly for the line recruiters who are the primary arbiters of candidate experience in the first place.


Back in 2010, Gerry Crispin addressed the concept of a Candidate Bill of Rights for RecruitFest! (which, coincidentally, was my first experience working with RecruitingBlogs), and also the genesis for this award, as Gerry publically issued the challenge based on the session:

“I’ll throw $1000 in the hopper to start a national Candidate Experience Award for Recruiters (and Private Sector Employers) who, in the eyes of job seekers, are creating a world-class candidate experience. Who else is in? Who wants to make this happen?”

The good news is, apparently, a lot of companies, as the C&Es have become big business, with some of the world’s biggest employers and most profitable brands working to drive this initiative through candidate surveys, process design & improvement and increased engagement with current & potential candidates alike.

But ultimately, the candidate experience conversation is flawed for the reason that this is not a top down directive that can be enforced or created at the corporate level, but rather, a values-based mindset that’s driven by individual recruiters on a daily basis, and these recruiters generally care about filling open requisitions, with time-to-fill and cost-per-hire being the primary metrics upon which their performance is judged, and this focus on just-in-time hiring outcomes seems to be at odds, if not entirely mutually exclusive, with the long term approach and more amorphous analytics associated with improved candidate experience.

The easiest fixes for candidate experience as currently defined have existed for years. Survey after survey shows that the primary complaint of candidates is not hearing back when a position has been filled, although a majority state that they receive some sort of automated acknowledgement when their application is uploaded into an ATS and before it enters a recruiters’ workflow.

Almost every ATS on the market, from legacy systems like Taleo & Brassring to emerging SaaS systems like Jobvite & SmartRecruiters has the capability to not only automate the application acknowledgement, but the ability to use that exact same functionality to send a “thanks but no thanks” e-mail when the candidate has been knocked out of process or is no longer under consideration. The problem is, for whatever reason, most recruiters choose not to do this. Simply sending an automated e-mail is enough for most candidates – and enough to make a significant difference in candidate experience.

Since the data for the Candidate Experience Awards was generated by sending surveys about the process directly to candidates via e-mail, with amazingly high response rates, it can be assumed that most of these leading companies have the added advantage of an ATS that functions not only as a system of record, but also a system of engagement, and that candidates will not only welcome campaign-based communications, but also take up a tangible call-to-action.

This offers employers an opportunity to drive referrals, build engaged talent networks and drive candidates to social sites & owned career platforms (or “talent communities,” if you like fluff). It’s a win-win situation, and eminently, the most immediately solvable component of the entire candidate experience issue.

Ultimately, I actually think we do a good job with candidate experience – defining a candidate as someone who’s qualified, interested and available for a current or projected job opening. Those candidates who have the skill sets to move past the disposition phrase of resume review and into some sort of secondary screening (most commonly a phone call) almost always receive at least some sort of perfunctory feedback, and as long as they’re still in process, can expect reasonably good treatment and a high level of engagement from the recruiter they’re working with. And if you’re taking the time to do a :30 phone screen, or come in for an in-person interview, recruiters almost always at least reciprocate that by providing what we’d consider to be a positive candidate experience.

The real problems seem to stem from a different phenomenon: applicant experience. And that, fundamentally, should be seen from a different lens. As HR Technology improves, functions like one click applies and social integrations make it easy for people to apply for jobs (which is a good thing), but with that ease comes a tsunami of often unqualified candidates who do not meet the minimum stated criteria for the job they’re applying for. And because they do not meet these benchmarks, nor are they viable for the position, recruiters owe these applicants less than ones who were able to actually self-select and who will move forward in the process.

Just because someone applies for a job doesn’t mean they deserve any more of a recruiters’ time then they’ve already gotten just by clicking an apply button if they’re not actually candidates but instead, doing nothing more than the job seeker equivalent of posting and praying. And we all know this strategy rarely renders results.

So, when it comes to applicant experience, that’s a different conversation altogether, and one that’s easily fixable through really any ATS or point solution on the market – acknowledgement not only of receipt of submission, but acknowledgement that they’re not moving forward.

But if they actually meet the OFCCP criteria of a candidate vs. applicant, and their qualifications are aligned with what both the recruiter and hiring manager are looking for, then that person can expect white glove treatment as long as they're in process, and almost unilaterally, notification and feedback when they’re moved out of it.

It’s time to shift the conversation from how to treat applicants to how to better attract, engage and hire actual candidates – because that’s the entire purpose for the existence of recruiting, and the focus of the day-to-day efforts of the practitioners carrying req load whose time and resources are already stretched enough without having to make every applicant walk away with a positive experience – only the ones who are actually candidates. Placement over placation: that’s the ultimate best practice for recruiters. The rest is really just marketing.

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Comment by Keith D. Halperin on October 15, 2013 at 4:54pm

Thanks, Matt. I've said it elsewhere the vast majority of companies don't care about candidate or applicant experience. They don't have to unless they're looking for the "Fab 5%" everybody drools over or the politically-connected "Fab 5%" if they're employers of choice.  Almost everybody else can be (and usually is) treated like crap.

I had the privilege of helping review some of the questions for the C and Es, and I hope I may help out again if I am asked. Saying that, IMHO,rewarding a few companies seeking recognition for good practices is insufficient incentive for the huge number of companies out here who can't or won't do anything, and more likely than not- don 't even care. Frederick Douglass said it very well: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them…”




Comment by Joseph P. Murphy on October 18, 2013 at 2:45pm

Good ideas seem to grow, particularly free, voluntary initiatives that add value to the participants.  The growth of participation and engagement in the Candidate Experience Awards process has been significant and meaningful.

I have been involved in the Candidate Experience Awards (theCandEs) since their inception. As a member of the CandE Council, I lead the survey design team for 2013, was a judge and co-author of the whitepaper for 2012.

No doubt, staffing any size organization presents a degree of difficulty.  Small to large organization applied.  And the number of options for how to operate a staffing function allows for experimentation, trial and error, and for some practitioners, the opportunity to learn from experience and make improvements.  The Candidate Experience Awards are designed to help organizations learn from feedback and self evaluation. And, if you have the opportunity to sit and have a dialogue with participants, it will reveal elements of their learning journey.  Staffing is a business process with yields to manage.  And CandE participants are interested in improving the yield across a range of process variables.

“meeting the relatively low baseline for what recruiters should have ostensibly be doing for candidates in the first place – communicating status, illuminating what to expect in the process, and providing updates & feedback in a timely fashion”

Yes, we did ask questions regarding those practices.  And surprisingly many companies do not deliver that seemingly basic level of performance.  However, the survey went far beyond that.  One example from the candidate survey explores the perceived job relevance or face validity of the interview content:

All interview questions were professional and focused on my qualifications and experience.

It would seem useful to know how recruiters and hiring managers are executing the candidate evaluation step.  And perhaps that is more important than checking disposition boxes.

Yes, One Click Apply does bring a tsunami of unqualified applicants.  And CandE participants documented just how high that unqualified percentage can be. And they may have learned that the feature is a cause of one of their problems, and maybe not a good thing.

Yes, technology has many great features, but if they are not being used, so what?  

"acknowledgement not only of receipt of submission, but acknowledgement that they’re not moving forward."

Humans have many great features too. And, like with technology, if good human features - communication, personal interest, respect, and the discipline to use technology features, etc. are not used, so what? CandE participants learn how widely and consistently those “practices” are deployed in their organization.

Data from the CandEs show recruiting practices do indeed impact candidate/customer/brand affinity relationship.  Recruiting is in fact

Each organization makes choices regarding the nature of the candidate experience they want to deliver.  Those who have become aware of, and have chosen to participate in the CandE have made a commitment to self examination and reflection.  They are brave, committed, and seek to differentiate themselves in the market.  Candidates do compare and make judgments about an organization based upon their candidate experience.

I actually think we do a good job with candidate experience", is an interesting assertion.

CandE participants have entered into an evidence-based approach to answering questions about their recruiting process.  Some want to have evidence they know, some may just want to think they know.

Discerning the difference between applicant and candidate is helpful.  An experience that treats them both with respect can help candidates differentiate among companies where they may or may not want to work, spend their money, or advocate for in the community.  

At the end of the day, it is really a bigger issue than what happens along the Apply Now journey.

Click here for more on the candidate experience.

Comment by Keith D. Halperin on October 18, 2013 at 3:05pm

@ Joseph: Thank you. I think the companies involved in the CandEs are not the ones we need to concern ourselves with- the fact that they're willing to compete or at least learn where they stand indicates to me that they are (or at least someone in their organization is) somewhat interested in doing a decent job with CE. What I care about are the huge numbers of firms that aren't interested, and giving some companies awards for doing what every company should do as a matter of course is no more likely to improve things than giving awards to non-polluting companies will improve the overall environment, or to non-discriminating companies will improve the workplace. I strongly believe that even if something like the CandEs is necessary to begin the conversation (and I'm dubious about that), it sure as hell isn't sufficient to continue it and actually make a basic improvement in what the ordinary jobseeker goes through. In other words:

"What's the next step in the plan?"




Keith "Happy to Walk My Talk for This, Too" Halperin


Comment by Mitch Sullivan on October 19, 2013 at 2:18am

I agree with the basic premise of this blog - that decent candidate experience is just plain common sense, and usually happens as a byproduct of hiring decent recruiters.

But like it's older sibling 'employer branding', it's primary purpose is to give people something else to focus on, rather than just getting the basics right.

When I see HR and the inhouse community talking about things like candidate experience and employer branding, what I mostly see is fat people talking about diet plans.

Comment by Keith D. Halperin on October 21, 2013 at 2:45pm

@ Mitch: Well said. IMHO, recruiting is "quickly putting quality butts in chairs." The other stuff is mainly useful to enrich those who get paid to talk about it.





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